In this well-read article, a former Republican campaign worker tells a vivid tale about the incompetence of Republican professionals in his state, and how after the election was lost, the incompetents were rewarded and everybody else fired. In this article, Ricochet columnist Dave Carter asks the consultant class some pointed questions, specifically why grass-roots Republicans should trust them considering the fact that they were the architects of the John McCain and Mitt Romney disasters. This got me thinking about my own experiences with campaign consultants north of the border.
Ahead of the 2004 Federal Election, I accompanied my local candidate to an election readiness session designed to get the party’s volunteers ready at the riding level. One of the sessions was on strategic communication and was led by a (rather cute) French Canadian woman who was a corporate PR type by profession. She claimed that she advises party leader Stephen Harper on a daily basis. Us rubes were there to soak up her wisdom.
To recap, this was a heady time for conservatives in Canada. The Reform Party and the old Progressive Conservative Party had just united a few months ago under the Conservative label (ditching the word, Progressive) and had just got a dynamic new leader – Stephen Harper. With a decade of vote-spitting behind us, everybody had high hopes that we would be able to defeat the ruling Liberals now that we were united. The election readiness session, held in downtown Toronto, was part of the process to make sure all the swords are sharp and the chain of command clearly understood.
The corporate PR flack proceeded to give us much advice but a lot of it seemed wrongheaded to many in the audience. For instance, she said, don’t wear identifying party buttons when you approach the door while canvassing, it will close peoples’ minds to you before you have had a chance to speak to them. When I pointed out that if you approach a house and you don’t wear identifying party paraphernalia, the homeowner will be even more closed to you because he will think you are a Jehovah’s Witness. She disagreed, her conclusions were backed by scientific evidence, she said. Then she went on to describe what kind of suits you should wear, that scientific evidence shows that blue suits are the most trustworthy, while green and brown are the least. And hats? They are out, way out. Ditch them.
I happened to be sitting beside the party candidate for the Kenora Riding. He told the PR flack that his riding is in the remote north where wearing a suit outside in the middle of the day just looks weird to everybody. In addition, he likes to wear a baseball cap because he burns easily, and everybody there wears baseball caps anyway so they can relate to him. She said no; wear a suit, and ditch the cap, no matter how badly your face burns. She said her advice has been scientifically tested for rural as well as urban ridings. I leaned over and whispered to him, don’t listen to her, she’s an idiot.
At this point, I was going to point out that, as a scientific researcher, I thought her use of the word ‘science’ as a magic incantation to squelch contrary voices was unscientific, but I held my tongue. But thinking about it later, perhaps I shouldn’t have. First of all, were her poll-tested principles even applicable? Just because the question-takers say they prefer a suit to an open collar, in what context were they thinking – TV interview, boardroom, or door-to-door canvassing in a rural riding? It makes a difference. Common sense and real-world experience indicate that people have different expectations in different settings.
Then there is her use of the word ‘rural’. Kenora is not rural. This riding has the land area of France but with only 56,000 people. Many of the communities are isolated Indian reserves, reachable only by air. Most of the riding has no road or rail access. The cornfields of Iowa are rural. The riding of Kenora is something else entirely. I don’t even know what you would call most of it – frontier perhaps? As somebody who has lived four years in Canada’s high arctic, I understood that, as did our Kenora candidate, though our PR ‘expert’ did not. From the sounds of it, it looks like she had spent most of her time in the boardrooms of Montreal and Toronto and hadn’t ventured out much.
Like Martel in the first article, I said nothing because she was the ‘expert’ and I was a rank amateur. Also like Martel, I came to see how incompetent some experts can be. I think this phenomenon comes from the fact that these people have more credentials than practical experience. As a result, while they may have a good grasp of the big picture (though this is not guaranteed), they often don’t know all the messy details making up the small picture. Unfortunately, all those little things can add up to make the difference between victory and defeat. The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees are not worth as much as they think they are.
In contrast to the frustrated candidate from Kenora, the candidate from my riding went on to hire her for several hours of coaching sessions. I think this was more because she was attractive and my candidate had a weakness for the fairer sex. (The riding association paid for the sessions.)
As a postscript, the Conservatives went on to lose the 2004 election, though they kept the Liberals to a minority. Considering our high hopes, this was a bitter disappointment, much like Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 was to American conservatives. Among others, we lost the Kenora riding (though we won it two elections later, so it wasn’t the riding).
A couple of months after the election, there was a minor news item in the papers about Stephen Harper firing a whole series of consultants at party headquarters. The press spun it as a joke – Harper is getting desperate, but Harper went on to win the next three federal elections so I guess he fired the right people. I have always wondered if our PR flack was one of them. I haven’t heard from her since that stupid workshop.